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CA Press:Critter care codified

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Posted by desiree on December 30, 2002 at 00:55:02:


Critter care codified
Those who sell pets must provide a how-to guide with each animal's sale
By Margaret Talev -- Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Thursday, December 26, 2002
If your child begged for a pet this Christmas, but a dog or cat was too much to handle, that little salamander in the pet store window may have seemed a good compromise.
You might have thought twice, though, if the cashier handed you an instruction sheet with information like this: Uneaten crickets should be scooped out of the tank between meals so they don't bite the amphibian. If its drinking water gets too stale, its skin may bubble and it may lose its balance. Also, healthy salamanders and newts can live for 10 years -- a decade's worth of "exotic animal" veterinary bills.

That's the sort of detail Californians can expect to get with each pet purchase starting next week. A law that takes effect Wednesday requires pet merchants -- be they retail chains, independent stores or traveling salesmen who frequent county fairs -- to provide a written description of the creature's traits and tips on feeding and care with each sale.

The legislation was initiated by state Sen. Edward Vincent, D-Inglewood, at the request of the Doris Day Animal League. Its intent is twofold: to give new owners enough information to care for pets until they can do more in-depth reading, and to dissuade would-be buyers from taking on more than they can handle.

"It will help the consumer a tremendous amount," said Beverlee McGrath, the animal league's legislative director for Western states. "So many children are bringing home animals and the parents don't know how to care for them."

Skeptics may chafe at the bill's origins. McGrath said the idea came from a friend, actor Mickey Rooney's wife, Jan, who bought a pet for a grandchild but wished it had come with instructions.

McGrath knew of cases in which teens bought reptiles from pet sales booths at fairs or outside shopping malls, having no clue about what they were getting into.

Monitor lizards, for example, can reach up to 4 feet in length, she said. "These animals reach these humongous sizes and people really don't want to care for them and can't care for them. So they dump them in parks, and then it's a safety hazard."

The Humane Society, meanwhile, warns that pet owners need to know about illnesses pets can spread. Reptiles can carry salmonella bacteria and should be kept away from food-preparation areas. Owners also should wash their hands after touching lizards, snakes and turtles.

Pet retailers who know about the new law say they'll follow it, but many of them see it as an inconvenience. They must cobble together the guidelines themselves from books, online sources or by consulting veterinarians. They must pay their own printing costs. And they can be fined $250 for failing to provide a how-to sheet, although the law builds in one warning per merchant.

While the law aims to protect pet merchants from litigation over what is or isn't included in their printed guidelines, some retailers worry that putting anything in writing could make them vulnerable.

Lawmakers were similarly divided over whether the legislation was helpful or misguided. The measure passed 23-12 in the Senate and 50-23 in the Assembly, with almost all opposition coming from Republicans.

Some stores, including the San Diego-based Petco chain, already display free information sheets in racks at their stores. Petco spokesman Don Cowan said the company has been doing it for two years. To comply with the law, Petco will simply add more detail to the handouts and provide them to everyone at the time of purchase.

Meanwhile, some independent store owners say they didn't realize the measure had been signed into law, and would have to hustle to be ready by the new year.

Kathy Ireton, owner of Kathy's Pet Shop in Rocklin, said she's always talked customers through the quirks of each pet she sells, recommended books and encouraged buyers to follow up with her by phone.

"It's a good idea for people to actually know how to take care of their animals and know what they're taking home," she said. "But I think whatever the government wants us to hand out, they should provide it."

Pet owners also have mixed feelings about the law. Some say the legislation is unnecessary interference by government. A one-page handout is redundant for those who have owned a similar pet, and won't contain enough information to truly prepare a first-time owner, they say. Besides, libraries and the Internet are full of free information, if a pet owner doesn't want to buy books.

These skeptics say it will cost stores money to produce their own pamphlets -- and predict that cost will be passed on to customers. "My nieces have rats. If you're getting your 35th, rat it seems kind of silly," said Erika Starrs of Auburn, a stay-at-home mom and dog and cat owner.

"And who's going to enforce this? Do we really want our law enforcement officers going around making sure pet stores are doing this?"

Others welcome the law.

That includes Tasha and Chris Wilson of Roseville, who unwittingly became caretakers of a rambunctious Australian cattle dog after Tasha's parents decided to surprise the grandkids with a puppy.

"She's a very sweet dog, but she's as hyper as she can be," Tasha Wilson said.

What saved the Wilsons' sanity in those frantic first days was a one-page list of guidelines that the store had provided along with the dog. It helped them know what to expect in terms of the dog's mannerisms and dietary needs, and provided a vaccination schedule.

"We probably would have taken her to the vet eventually, but this helped us stick to the timeline," Tasha Wilson said.

If customers actually read the guidelines before they purchased pets, the Wilsons say some people may decide against their purchase at the last minute.

Now, if lawmakers would draft guidelines for how to handle feisty grandparents bearing gifts.

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